God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Tennessee Courthouse Displays Translation Mistake in Ten Commandments

As the debate about public displays of the Ten Commandments heats up again (also via the AP), this time in Mountain City in Johnson County, Tennessee, I think it’s worth remembering that most people are fighting over an inaccurate translation of the Ten Commandments.

In particular, the original Hebrew of the sixth commandment (fifth for Catholics and some others) applies only to illegal killing, so “thou shalt not kill” is overly broad, that is, wrong.

The sixth commandment does not address legal killing such as the death penalty. (As I explain in great detail in Chapter 7 of And God Said, we know this from looking at how the original Hebrew verb in the Ten Commandments is used elsewhere. But most modern translators know that “kill” is wrong, and therefore go with “murder” here. Though that translation is too narrow, it is better than “kill.”)

It’s true that “kill” is a common mistranslation, going back at least to the KJV, but it is nonetheless wrong.

The Johnson County case is particularly interesting because (my emphasis):

The display itself claims that the Ten Commandments are the historical foundation of American law. Accompanying it is a pamphlet written by local clergy that contends U.S. law springs from biblical morality and insists that the United States was founded on Christian principles. (source)

If the point of the Johnson County display is to reflect biblical morality, shouldn’t the best scholarship be used?

Does the fact that the Johnson County display is promoting a specific interpretation of the Bible, rather than the Bible itself, make a difference to the case?

And while we’re at it (and I hope I don’t regret asking), what do you think: Should displays of the Ten Commandments be allowed in public?

[Update: The Tomahawk has more details here.]

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January 13, 2011 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , , | 17 Comments